O Captain my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring
from O Captain My Captain, byWalt Whitman
I learned a new word yesterday: Uzai! And like most of the things I’ve learned here in Japan, I learned it the hard way; from a thirteen year old terrorist named Matsui-kun, or should I say Matsui-sensei.
During the class (in which nothing was learned and by the looks of things, soon, nothing will be attempted to be taught either) Matsui-Kun stood up on his chair and hollered, “BABAA, anoo, TAKAHASHI SENSEI? Soto ni itte ii?” (Can I go outside?) The class laughed at his faux-Freudian slip. Babaa, used the way he used it, means an Old hag or Old Bitch. Takahashi was near tears, and again that glutton for punishment in me I call a heart went out to her. I mean, she gets no support from the other teachers and every time I return to the school, the students / classes have gotten exponentially worse. Last time they were throwing things, but this time…Arrgh!
“Suwarimasyou ne,” (Take your seats everyone) she said. He didn’t. It was a freaky Indian summer-ish balmy 65 degrees outside, so Matsui decided to take a walk on the terrace overlooking the exercise field and gymnasium. He slid the glass door open and went outside. Satou-kun was quick to join him. They both started shouting “ganbare” (Hang in there) down at second year students out on the field playing soccer. Takahashi pretended not to see any of this and urged me to ignore it as well and try to get through the game of the day: The Buzz Game.
The Buzz Game, for those of you unfamiliar with it, is a game in which all the children in the class stand up and starting with the student in the front row on the left or right side of the class, begin to count from 1. Any number that has a 3 or is divisible by 3 should not be said. Instead you must say “Buzz” while keeping the rhythm by clapping after each number. For example: 1, clap, 2, clap, buzz, clap, 4, clap, 5, clap, buzz etc…it gets pretty tricky in the higher numbers and when you consider this is a second language for 99% of the kids. But the kids usually dig it.
So when he heard the clapping, he rejoined the class, Satou in tow. He then proceeded to mount his chair, as usual. Then he took it to next level…and climbed dangerously atop his desk. Up there he began clapping and counting off all the numbers as loud as he could. Each student should only say their number or buzz so he was distracting the students trying to concentrate on the game; his goal no doubt! All the students watched him up there, unmolested, unchallenged by authority, and like some scene from Dead Poets Society some of them started mounting their desks themselves.
I glanced at Takahashi. She had her cheeks puffed up in pantomimic expression of anger but her eyes were misty and I could see it was all she could do not to start crying in front of the students or run screaming out of the room. I looked up at Matsui. For a menace, he really is the cutest kid in the school. He has a ridiculously disarming smile and he knows it, wields it like wand. He weighs less than my knapsack and I can’t help but imagine that if I were to have a son with a Japanese woman in Japan I would want him to have the courage and individuality of this little mofo…he’s so rare here.
“Loco-Sensei, Takahashi babaa uzai deshou? ”
While a good quarter of the other students half heartedly clapped and tried to keep up the motions of playing the Buzz game and of being in an institution of learning where they might expect to learn something, a solid seven or eight students were now standing atop their desk chatting and throwing things at each other like this was the most natural thing to do. The only quiet people in the class were Takahashi and I. So I wondered why Matsui called her noisy. Urusai means noisy.
“Chigau! Urusakunai yo! Matsui-kun no hou ga urusai yo.” (She isn’t noisy. You’re the noisy one.)
“Chigau yo,” he snapped back. “Urusai janakute uzai! Takahashi babaa UZAI deshou?” (You got it wrong! Not noisy but uzai. That old bitch is uzai right?)
All the students laughed. I hate these awkward moments of vulnerability. I have so many holes in my Japanese that it’s child’s play for the kids to crawl into the holes and play with my head. That’s why I try to avoid using it as often as possible. But the kids are always trying to communicate and they simply can’t in English.
“Uzai? Uzai no imi wa nante iu?” (What does Uzai mean?)
“Uzai wa uzai da mon!” (Uzai is uzai!)
“Donna toki ni tsukau no?” (When do you use it?)
‘Chyo iratto kita toki tsukau! Datte saa Takahashi babaa chyo mukatsku kara!” (I use it when I get irritated! And that old bitch makes me sick.)
I wanted to support him because like most children his ability to judge character was on point. He could perceive her for what she really was…someone of dubious respectability. But that wasn’t my job at the moment and I had to consider other things like the power this Babaa had over me with her friggin’ pen. The power to add stress to my life. The power to sic silky Tony from the company on me. I had to intervene on her behalf somehow so assuming a stern demeanor, the daddy that don’t take no mess, I said to Matsui in English, accompanied by hand gestures, “come on down from there.”
The other students were clearly taking their cue from Matsui. If he acquiesced they’d all acquiesce. If he got down they’d all get down.
Matsui looked at me with that heavenly smile of his, which always makes me and anyone else within fifty feet of it smile, cocked his said to the side, took a cursory glance at Takahashi Babaa (Her new name in my mind) folded his arms and said: “No!”
I must’ve looked pretty fucking silly standing there with “No” dripping from the smile frozen on my face.
I’ve lived here in Japan going on 7 years now. And, in all that time, I can count on one hand the number of times someone Japanese, male or female, has said directly to me, in response to a question, request, suggestion, or in this case, a command, “No!” I mean, you really have no idea how disarming this kind of thing is. In the US, I would say it’s about the equivalent of a child heaving up a big thick curdling glob of flim and hawking it in your face. Someone else’s child. A child you couldn’t break in half over your knee.
It actually took me a moment to even process it, I’ve become so unaccustomed to hearing the word “No” in all its glory. I mean, it really is an awesome word. I know the current zeitgeist says that “Yes” is a much stronger force for good in the world, and all, but No ain’t no slouch. No is the quintessential word of rebellion and revolution…concepts I was taught at an even younger age than Matsui, were the only methods for achieving meaningful change.
Again I had to refrain from applauding him.
Fortunately, the bell rang and he just got down of his own accord, looking at me through smiling eyes as if to say, “This was fun wasn’t it?”
Takahashi…Babaa-sensei practically ran out of the class before even the Westminsters Chimes was completed…
classic scene from Dead Poets…